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Recital at Ravinia - Lorraine Hunt Lieberson
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Unbewegte laue Luft, op. 57/8 [4:09]
Ruhe, Süsslebchen, im Schatten, op. 33/9 [5:57]
Von ewiger Liebe, op. 43/1 [5:01]
George Friderick HANDEL (1685-1759)
La Lucrezia, HWV 145:
O Numi eterni!/Già superbo del mio affano [6 :27]
Ma voi forse nel cielo/Il suol che preme [5 :18]
A voi, padre, consorte/Già nel seno comincia compir [4 :03]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Trois chansons de Bilitis [10 :08]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1759-1791)
Dans un bois solitaire, K.308 [2:53]
Als Luise die Briefe ihres ungetreuen Liebhabers verbrannte, K.520 [1 :45]
Abendempfindung an Laura, K. 523 [6:23]
Eine kleine deutsche Kantate, K.619 (extract) [9.38]
George Friderick HANDEL (1685-1759)
Giulio Cesare: Son nata a lagrimar [8:37]
Harry Thacker BURLEIGH (1866-1949)
Deep River [3:17]
Robert E. TELSON (b. 1949)
Calling You [3:07]
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (mezzo)
Drew Minter (counter-tenor) (in Giulio Cesare); Peter Serkin (piano)
rec. live, Martin Theatre, Highland Park, Illinois, USA, 5 August 2004
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU907500 [76:39]
Experience Classicsonline

Lorraine Hunt was born in 1954. The early part of her career was spent mainly on the operatic stage where she appeared in one or two contemporary works, even in a Carmen or two. Otherwise she was happiest in baroque or classical repertoire. She married the composer Peter Lieberson in 1999 and they gave many recitals together, frequently including music he had composed for her. She died of cancer in 2006, and since her death several recordings have emerged to great acclaim. Having never heard her, I was therefore happy and curious to review this disc.

The recital opens with a group of three Brahms songs. The singer takes a little time to get into her stride in the first one, where attack is sometimes tentative, but this apart both singer and pianist are wholly successful at evoking night and stillness and the sense of the subject's tender reflections on her beloved. Likewise in the second song, where the vocal line is almost caressed by the lullaby rhythms and harmonies in the piano part. Hunt Lieberson then rises magnificently to the long, enraptured phrases in the later part of the song. She is splendid also in Von ewiger Liebe, though here, rather than giving too much too soon, she is careful to pace the rising tension of the young girl's avowal of love, beginning the passage at a tempo slower than usual, and rising only gradually to what is one of Brahms' most passionate climaxes, the singer's comparative restraint only adding to its power and effect.

Excellent as she is in the Brahms group, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson is even finer in the three extracts from Handel's early cantata La Lucrezia. Lucretia, wife of Collatinus, has been raped by Tarquinius, and here she expresses her shame, anger and wish for vengeance. In the third extract, in a short passage of remarkable beauty, she describes how the sword with which she will take her own life has already begun to pierce her bosom. Hunt Lieberson assumes the character with uncanny empathy. Though this is not period performance as such, Peter Serkin, with minimal pedalling at the piano, allows us to set aside the anachronism, just as we admire the subtlety of the ornamentation the singer employs in the repeats of the two da capo arias. In the second, in particular, In suol che preme - 'May the ground…open under him, may the air he breathes become infected' - she uses ornamentation to great dramatic purpose, her anger increasingly out of control as the aria progresses. This is great Handel singing.

She achieves just the right synthesis of naïve innocence and emergent eroticism for Debussy's Bilitis, then brilliantly changes character when her rather forceful lover is speaking. (And has there ever been a more restrained piece of musical pictorialism than the little frogs in the piano part of the first song?)

The Mozart group is no less successful. The first two songs are rather tongue in cheek, the one a delicate exposure of love which contrives to be innocent and knowing at the same time, the other a tiny, angrily melodramatic scena in which Luise burns her faithless lover's letters. In the third song the protagonist is dying and addresses her friends and intimates for the last time. At the time of this recital the singer's final illness had already been diagnosed, and one wonders how much personal involvement she felt with the character here. The effect is deeply poignant, in any event, and is achieved by technical means of which some exquisite pianissimo singing at key moments is only one example. With the extract from K.619 she is on more difficult ground. One of Mozart's Masonic works, I don't think it is one of his finest. It was people that Mozart understood, their feelings, their failings: he was less at home with philosophy! It is magnificently sung, but Peter Serkin, so economic elsewhere, is too forceful, even heavy-handed, for Mozart.

Hunt Lieberson is then joined by counter-tenor Drew Minter in a beautiful duet from Handel's Giulio Cesare, and the recital closes with two touching encores, an arrangement of Deep River and Calling You from the 1987 film Bagdad Cafe.

The presentation of the disc is excellent, with a thoughtful essay on the programme by George Gelles and full texts and translations. There are a few odd noises here and there, but otherwise the first sign of an audience is a ripple of amusement at the end of the first Mozart song. Applause is generally included thereafter, but oddly, not at the very end. It is touching to hear the singer's spoken voice in the later part of the recital - encouraging, too, to hear children's voices in the audience's laughter - but it seems curious to include these spoken introductions at the end of the track previous to the piece being introduced. The recording is fine, but did she walk about during the first of the Debussy pieces? More worrying is the distracting thump of the piano's damper mechanism which sometimes intrudes on the intimate atmosphere these musicians have created.

Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's voice was a most beautiful one and she uses it here with great understanding and intelligence. I'm an admirer now and this disc can only provoke further admiration.

William Hedley



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